How to Sell or Save Your Soul on the Internet: What it Really Means to “Market” Online

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Four years ago, when I first started poking around into information marketing, one of the things I was told was that

“marketing is marketing. And it’s the same no matter where you do it, online or off.”

I was willing to take that statement at face value, having dipped my toe into the mysteries of marketing online, after having been buried in offline marketing for so many years. I was new to this arena, so I chose a few people to learn from and vowed to keep an open mind. After all, I knew offline marketing — I’d been doing it, and helping my clients do it, for 25 years. Now I wanted to know how to transfer my knowledge to the online world, so I signed up to learn from those who were already doing it successfully.

If I could use the same principles I used all those years in offline marketing, in online marketing, so much the better. And, as they told me, marketing is marketing.

But then — it wasn’t.

Marketing online was very different than marketing offline, I came to find.

Different strange. Different bad. And different good.

1. Different strange: The rules of communication change drastically

You’ve probably heard some form of the much-debated statistic that 93% of communication is nonverbal, from the 1972 study by Albert Mehrabian. That only 7% of your meaning is derived from your words, and the rest is conveyed through nonverbal communication methods like voice tone and inflection (38%), facial expression (53%), and body language. Those are impressive numbers, and even if the study is off by 10%, it’s easy to see why we can be swayed so thoroughly by charismatic people, or instantly dislike others — regardless of what their words are telling us.

Nonverbal communication goes out the window online.

Well, guess what’s missing from online marketing and virtual relationships? Almost all of the so important nonverbal communication cues we’ve come to rely on when decoding messages from other human beings, that’s what. Most virtual relationships don’t have the voice cues, facial expression, eye contact, and body language we need to translate each other’s messages. Sure, you can pick up some audio cues through teleclasses and the phone, if you bother to go that far. And now that video has invaded the internet to the point that everyone can do it, you can add some facial expression and body language to the mix. But by and large, when we’re relaying marketing messages on the internet, we’re still depending a lot on the written word.

(Yes, you can watch TV and movie trailers and see all kinds of graphics on the internet, but I’m not talking about that kind of marketing. I’m talking about the kind of marketing you and I, as small businesses, do to promote our own companies, how we present ourselves to our customers and clients. And don’t tell me you’re using movie trailers, because even if you are, are they really able to take the place of your actual presence, communicating a message to your client?)

Words carry the weight. Content is king. Great copy is mesmerizing.

If we’re the audience, we get sucked in. If we’re the marketer and were born before 1980, we have to learn a whole new way to communicate. Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Online, there’s no hiding — you spill your guts in copy on the internet. No one wants to read corporate speak or personality-less writing. We want to feel we know the person behind the marketing. So that means personality has to be mixed in with the content.

This was really difficult for me at first. Offline, I was used to meeting people face to face. I made in-person presentations to corporate clients. I looked people in the eye. I carried myself a certain way, and I watched how others carried themselves. I read body language and made decisions based on nuances and unspoken stuff in the air. I cared for my clients, I served them well, and they could tell by the way we interacted. Very little of my business revolved around talk of my successes, and very much of it revolved around what was possible for my clients.

You could get to know me by being around me.

Online, people get to know you through your marketing.

Switch to online, and no one could “see” my integrity. My unspoken, nonverbal communication didn’t translate. My personality didn’t reach through my stuffy website and speak to prospective clients. My words came off as very corporate and straight laced, which became the whole “online me,” as no one could feel the warmth of my physical presence, my humor, my approachable demeanor. If you didn’t meet me in person, you didn’t “get” me.

It’s easy for the young ones, they just tell it all, bust it wide open, no holds barred. Most never learned to hold back, like I did. Online, you’re supposed to tell stories, and share more of your own feelings and experiences, make it real for the reader. The offline corporate world of my not-so-distant past had little use for this kind of openness. Very few of my clients would have appreciated being told a story or engaged with emotion. I was (honestly) told by a CEO once when presenting branding strategy and how it engaged, “You know, no one cares about this crap but you.” He just wanted me to quantify how many more widgets the campaign would sell. So the “be personal” online marketing philosophy has been a strange ride for me.

It took me a long time to be able to begin to translate “me,” and the way I had about me (and of course we all know our clients are really buying us, right?) to the online written word. I have to constantly be aware of it, and I think I’m getting better as time goes on. And if you’re not under 30, you’ve had to make these changes too — if you want anyone online to listen.

Different strange. Indeed.

2. Different bad: There are too many egos and scare tactics paraded as marketing, and no one is pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

Well, it’s kinda like the Wild Wild West out there. Any new frontier is fair game for the carpetbaggers and snake oil salesmen, right?

No rules. Bandits. Unqualified people trying to get something for nothing. Others cutting corners or trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Not really looking out for our best interests. Empty promises.

It’s all puffed up, as Seinfeld would say.

We used to call it puffery. And it wasn’t good.

Theresa Bradley-Banta had a terrific article on ego last week, and I wrote about growing weary of this kind of marketing, too.

It seems funny to me, because the offline world of marketing was so over big egos and scare tactics long ago, at least in the ponds I swam in. Offline marketing has been around long enough that people know how to spot the bad guys.

And here’s the formula:

To be successful, leave your ego at the door, and do what’s best for the customer.

That will usually be what’s best for your company, too, if you’re aligned right. (And scaring people into buying really did go out with the snake oil guys — that’s why it’s so surprising to see so much of it online.)

In order to get clients online, our “mentors” tell us, we have to beat our drums loudly. We have to talk about ourselves, not our clients. We have to talk about making six figures. And when we do talk about our clients, we have to parade them out and have them talk about us, telling the world how successful we’ve made them, in dollars and cents. We have to tell people terrible things will happen to them if they don’t buy from us, or buy from us by a certain time. And excuse me if I reveal this, but it apparently doesn’t even matter if what we’re saying is actually the truth. Very few people are willing to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

Different bad. We don’t need to follow the “winning” strategies used “successfully” online. That would be going backwards for many of us. Those of us who have marketed successfully offline need to take a moment and step back, shake it off, and come to our senses. This online arena needs time to mature.

3. Different good: You’re actually forced to be more transparent, more honest, online.  Natural selection will separate the wheat from the chaff.

Here’s the thing: it’s so bad it’s good.

I don’t know why this wasn’t easier for me to spot from the beginning. Of course a new uncharted territory would be no man’s land for awhile. The internet and online marketing didn’t exist not so many years ago. It’s just learning how to be.

There are gurus and pioneers, yes, but they’re just gurus and pioneers because they went there first. It doesn’t mean they’ve found the best ways to market on the internet — just the first ways. There’s lots of room for improvement.

Maybe you actually know the best way to market on the internet, but haven’t tried it yet. Maybe I know what it is. Maybe the next guru knows what it is.

But here’s what I’ve learned:

1.) Everyone is watching. There’s no place to hide. You need to come out from behind the curtain, engage, and be interesting, as well as relevant. You’ve got to put yourself into your marketing, if you want to market online. That part’s different for sure.

2.) And we’ve come full circle. Marketing is marketing. It may look different online, but the old offline rules still apply: the customer, not content, is king.

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